Today saw the launch of our ‘Orvis Residency’ here at the Westley Richards showroom and factory. A three month collaboration running straight up through the coming Christmas period.
Here at Westley Richards, a true adoration for the great outdoors and all its splendour is in our blood, and none more so than Orvis can rightfully share that spirit. Whilst Westley Richards may have a rich 207 year heritage, Orvis deservedly boasts a 163 year history themselves, and are regarded as one of the oldest manufacturers of fly-fishing rods and reels in the world.
In the USA, Orvis is cherished as an iconic American outdoor brand, known for presenting a much desired lifestyle based around the pursuit of fin and feather.
With a strong following here in the UK it made perfect sense to partner Orvis and showcase some of their superb fly fishing and dog products. Many a keen fieldsports enthusiast is just as eager to cast a fly as fire a shot, therefore we are excited to position their collections side by side our best guns and fine leather goods.
Our store will be holding a range of fishing equipment and dog accessories.
Fly casting techniques were ably demonstrated by Orvis fly fishing specialist Keith Passant, who kept all entertained with his pinpoint accuracy and easy teaching style. Many who had never held a rod before were soon learning the fundamental techniques of successful casting under Keith’s watchful eye.
To top the whole exciting day off, ‘Bentley Birmingham’ were in attendance with their magnificent Bentayga SUV, a tour de force in car manufacture, which unquestionably added some style and elegance to the day. Another iconic British brand, Bentley has always been at the forefront of luxury car design and shares Westley Richards’ drive for constant innovation. This year they celebrate their 100th year in the automotive industry with the launch of the much lauded EXP 100 GT, a fully electric exploration into how grand touring could look by 2035.
The whole day was thoroughly enjoyed by all and it cannot be that often that you get three iconic brands together with a combined history of 470 years!
After a two-year hiatus, the Scottish Sporting Journal is back, injecting a modern design into a much-loved 40-year-old title; the same passion for Scotland, captured and documented in a new, exciting way. Evolving from the Gazette to the Journal, this 180-page bi-annual magazine is a visual and written journey through Scotland’s wild places, capturing the passion, craft and pursuits within them.
The ethos behind the publication is that Scotland represents a way of life that is long lost to much of the modern world; a way of life in which the people, wildlife and landscape are all intrinsically linked. The aim of its content is to share this emotion and experience, offering true escapism to their readers. From chasing brown trout in small spate rivers to stalking stags in the Highlands to spending time with faraway island communities, Scottish Sporting Journal puts the focus on visual storytelling, capturing the essence of what makes Scotland such a unique country.
Volume II, Issue I highlights include:
– The Arab Warrior Guns from Westley Richards A unique pair of museum-quality featuring the most prolific gold inlay coverage of any guns they have built in their 207-year history
– Hunting with golden eagles We head high into the Cairngorms National Park to witness golden eagles hunting mountains hares in their natural habitat
– Hidden Scotland with Jim Richardson Renowned National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson shares some of his favourite images from his adventures around Scotland
– The new spirit of Scotland With Scottish gin reportedly set to usurp whisky in the next 12 months, we visit the Isle of Harris distillery to see it first hand
– Exploring the Isle of Arran Known as Scotland in Miniature, we explore the many sporting opportunities and way of life on the Isle of Arran
– Spearfishing in remote seas Spearfishing guide Will Beeslaar heads into the cold waters in pursuit of Pollock, with bespoke underwater photography
– Salmon fishing on the Spey A morning with ghillie Roddy Stronach, who has lived and worked on the Spey for 15 years, to understand how the role of a ghillie is changing
Hot off the press and looking magnificent is TheExplora journal by Westley Richards. This last week we received the first 10 copies for approval and we all have to say that it surpasses even our demanding standards!
Having taken 2 1/2 years to bring to fruition it was with great excitement, trepidation and relief that we got to handle the first copies fresh in from the printers. This project was a true labor of love for the team here at Westley Richards, so it was finally great to see the fruits of all that hard work.
The front cover features Westley Richards stunning and as yet unseen ‘Forest Rifle’, a magnificent .600 droplock double rifle specially commissioned to reflect the Central African forest environment. Fully carved in exceptional detail with the flora and fauna of the forest floor, the story of this rifle unfolds in the stunning photography The Explora fans have come to expect from Westley Richards.
Other articles, specially commissioned, focus on engraving, gunmaking, historical weapons, shooting and gun fit, topics we hope will be close to the heart of many an avid sporting man and woman.
Presented in a beautifully-designed luxury format with a combination of high quality uncoated and gloss coated paper stock and an outer cover finished with a scratch resistant matt lamination with spot gloss varnish and gold foil embossed logo. The 180-page journal, epitomises the exceptional standards and painstaking attention to detail synonymous with Westley Richards.
With a limited print run of only 1000 copies, never to be re-printed, The Explora journal is set to become a collectors item that no self respecting Westley Richards afficiando should be without.
The first copies to clients will be coming out in the next few weeks so for those of you yet to place your order now is the time!!!!!
To order your copy of The Explora journal click here
After nearly 2 1/2 years in the making Westley Richards is pleased to announce the first printed edition of The Explora journal.
Since the introduction of Westley Richards blog The Explora in July 2013 much discussion has centred around the exceptional photography and unique insight that the blog has given to the world of fine guns and the shooting community at large. We were often asked by our followers whether a printed edition of The Explora would ever see the light of day and that it seemed such a shame that the great imagery associated with the blog would never become available in a printed hard copy. With so much else going on at the factory and the constant quest to build better and finer guns a priority, the idea of bringing The Explora to print seemed but a distant thought.
With the passing of former Chairman and Managing Director Simon D Clode in 2016, we thought it only fitting to pay tribute to him by bringing to print the vision he had started in 2013. And so began the seriously hard work of putting together something that was not only visually stunning but also of genuine interest. A true labour of love this journal has taken almost as long to put together as one of our fine guns and as with all things Westley Richards the final product is second to none.
So what can you really expect from The Explora journal? Well it goes without saying that the journal is lavishly illustrated throughout with superb colour and monochrome imagery, 90% of which has never been seen before as it was specially commissioned for the journal. Sumptuous photo essays from the Westley Richards factory accompany detailed articles that delve into aspects of the gun and shooting world, topics we are sure you will find as equally interesting as we do. Guns and rifles naturally grace the pages as do the gunmakers that build such works of art. All of this capped off with in the field imagery and of course wonderful touches of ephemera and nostalgia.
Presented in a beautifully-designed luxury format with a combination of high quality uncoated and gloss coated paper stock and an outer cover finished with soft coat laminate and gold foil embossed logo. The 180-page, advertisement free journal, epitomises the exceptional standards and painstaking attention to detail synonymous with Westley Richards and is certain not to disappoint the avid sportsman and gun enthusiast.
With a strictly limited edition print run The Explora journal is certain to become a collectors item so you would be wise to place your order sooner rather than later. There will be no reprint once we sell out. For all those loyal followers of this blog whom we have kept entertained for years, you can now finally get to hold something of The Explora truly in your hands!
To advance order your copy of The Explora journal click here
I recently had the pleasure of hosting one Tyler Sharp, a journalist and photographer from the USA. I first met Tyler earlier this year at the Safari Club International convention when he casually and rather shyly wandered onto our stand holding a copy of some new publication. My initial thoughts were of some mildly eccentric character, better placed in a Western movie than the floor of the worlds largest hunting show.
Waiting for some lame sales pitch and preparing to savage all that he might say, I took the volume from his hand and began to flick through the pages. First impressions were of a beautifully produced publication, the like of which I had yet to see in the hunting world. This was no throw away magazine, this was something different and as the Texan boy told me his story I knew that this was someone with real passion for what he was doing and that we had a common interest in the future of our sporting heritage.
Since that first meeting I have found Tyler to be a uniquely honest and immensely passionate individual with genuine enthusiasm for the outdoors and the wider hunting world. This month we spent a couple of days here at the Westley Richards factory before heading off on a fabulous hunt for Roe Buck in the heart of the Wiltshire Downs.
I would encourage you, perhaps even urge you to subscribe to this great publication, or at the very least obtain a copy. You’ll be surprised at just how good it is and how the future of the sport we enjoy so much is going to rely on a refreshing new perspective. The world is a fast changing place and we face many new challenges as outdoor sports men and women.
I’ll now leave it to Tyler to give an insight into his mission and that of the ‘Modern Huntsman’.
Greetings Westley Richards readers, I just wanted to introduce myself, as I’ll likely be contributing some ongoing stories from the field. My name is Tyler Sharp, and I’m a photographer and writer based out of Dallas, Texas. I’ve spent the majority of my career documenting hunts, adventures, and conservation efforts all around the world, which has all led to my recent charge as Editor in Chief of a new publication called Modern Huntsman.
It was this that led me to the Westley Richards team, and we quickly realized commonality in virtue, ethical hunting pursuits, and creative storytelling. I’ve recently returned from a trip to visit the factory in Birmingham, England, which we’ll further detail in a future installment, but for now wanted to give you a bit more background on Modern Huntsman.
For those of you who don’t already know, Modern Huntsman is a biannual publication for like-minded conservationists, creatives, and outdoor enthusiasts. Born out of frustration with the way hunting is often misrepresented today, this publication is told from the perspective of hunting purists and philosophers, unaltered by the skews of mainstream media, corporate interests, or misinformed emotional rants. In short, we’re returning to the root traditions, in hopes of improving the perception of hunting in modern society.
For many of us, hunting is a way of life, a tradition passed down by our grandfathers, fathers, and brave mothers. It’s a way of staying connected to the land, harvesting wild food to sustain our families, our souls, and is a shared passion and pursuit in many countries the world over. Hunting also plays a majority role in conservation, which ensures that expanses of land stay untamed, and that wildlife populations thrive — something we’ll be prominently focusing on as we move forward with the publication.
But this isn’t just for hunters, and while we know that there will be opposition, we believe that through our collective stories, photographs, and films, we’ll be able to educate some folks about overlooked realities, and win the minds and hearts of those who still have them open. Through presenting stories based in virtue, ethics, personal growth, and statistical merit, our aim is to inspire, educate, challenge, and set the record straight in some cases.
We’ve assembled some of the best photographers and writers in the outdoor world, many of which you might already know. These are folks who’ve spent their years living off the land, enduring extreme conditions, and have sometimes risked their lives to ensure that wildlife thrives, and the traditions of hunting survive the modern age.
From the mountains of the American west to the fields of south Texas, the savannahs of East Africa to the governmental councils on regulation, Volume One covers a diverse range of topics, all unified by common ethics. Printed on thick matte stock, and bound into a substantial book of over 200 pages, it is more of an art portfolio than a publication, and a fitting showcase for the breathtaking work everyone has produced. We have no advertisements in the first issue, and as we move forward we’ll begin to integrate select brands and organizations to partner on stories of hunting history, conservation success, and notable characters, outfitters, chefs, and artists in the community. These will be collaborative, integrated stories instead of intrusive and heavy-handed ads, which will help us keep the message pure, and the conversations constructive.
We’ve sold through our first print run of 5,000 copies in three months, and have just re-ordered another 5,000 to continue sharing our mission with both hunters and non-hunters alike. Volume Two is scheduled to release in the fall of 2018, and will be centered around a theme of public lands, which is a hot topic in the United States to be sure. Apart from the political applications, we’ll also be exploring the realities of land access in other parts of the world, and how that affects land use, wildlife management, and hunting access. We’ll also be focusing on how these issues can bring folks together under common cause to protect what’s important, rather than squabble over something potentially insignificant.
This is just the first step in a long, important journey for Modern Huntsman, and we’d be honored to have you join us. To conclude, I’d like to leave you some parting words, which is the epilogue in the last few pages of Modern Huntsman Volume One, as a sort of call to action in what has become such an emotionally charged debate:
For hunters, we ask that you carefully consider the effect that your actions can have on not only your environment, but on the perception of this tradition. Whether through deed, word, or photograph, we feel that care should be taken, and respect given, for how quickly news can be spread in today’s world for good or ill. Therefore, choose your steps wisely, and wherever possible, see that they aim in a direction of positive progress and accurate representation, instead of confrontational detriment and further divisiveness.
For non-hunters, we appreciate your open-mindedness, and willingness to hear what we feel is a different, yet very important side of the hunting narrative. While we can’t speak for everyone, it is our aim to give voice to the overwhelming amount of like-minded hunters and conservationists who often lead quiet lives, in hopes of connecting with more folks like yourself, and finding common ground. We’d ask that as situations arise, you recall the beauty and honesty on these pages, as compared to the message that the mainstream media presents, and let respectful passion and conservation statistics win out over the often skewed biases and violent emotions.
And while some of you may never pick up a bow or a shotgun to harvest your own food, know that should the day come when you decide to, this community would jump at the opportunity to show you the ropes. Where you may have once felt opposition, you’d now find comradery, and a sense of belonging in one of the oldest traditions known to humankind. In short, we’d love to take you hunting.
Whether in the field, or in metaphor,
For more information, to order a copy, or subscribe to Modern Huntsman, you can visit one of the links below.
An interesting find this last week was this ‘Spicer’s Stalking Records’ of 1914, detailing Red Stag trophies from the 1913 season. The reason we say interesting is that a close link existed between Westley Richards and the famed taxidermist Peter Spicer of Leamington Spa, which until now we have never seen published in anything other than Westley Richards ‘Centenary’ catalogue of 1912.
Peter Spicer was born in 1839 and died in 1935, aged 96. He was one of the pre-eminent taxidermists of the day and was renowned for the quality of his cased birds, fish and Red Stag mounts. His studio operated primarily from Leamington Spa with an offices based in Inverness, Scotland, that handled many of the trophies hunted in the north.
Peter Spicer 1839-1935
The opening page of ‘Spicer’s Stalking Records’ giving the two retail address’s used by Westley Richards at the time.
Individually ‘tipped in’ photos of some of the better stags shot during the 1913 season.
‘Spicer’s Stalking Records’ is a very nice publication that detailed many of the great deer forests, along with the best trophy Red Stags shot on those estates. Many of the better stags have tipped in images along with a short story about the trophy. The would unquestionably have been fierce competition amongst estates to produce the best trophies!
Westley Richards clearly had strong links with Peter Spicer and although no records exist today of how this relationship came about, it is probably safe to assume that it was of mutual benefit between the two great companies. If clients shot game with Westley Richards guns and rifles then clearly they needed a good taxidermist to prepare the varying trophies. It is worth remembering that Westley Richards also offered fishing rods, reels and accessories at the time and so all forms of taxidermy were a requirement for the sporting elite of the day.
Interestingly, Spicer’s Inverness office offered for sale Westley Richards guns and rifles, clearly acting as an agent in the north for the company, something we were until now unaware of.
The First World War would soon consume everyones attention and it would be somewhat sobering if time permitted, to see how many of the names listed in this 1914 Stalking Records actually survived the war.
An advert for Westley Richards Deer Stalking rifles.
For those eager gun enthusiasts among you the name Donald Dallas should need no introduction. He has almost single handedly written the history of many of the great names in British gun and rifle making including that of Holland & Holland, James Purdey & Sons, Boss & Co., David McKay Brown, John Dickson & Son and now with his latest publication, Alexander Henry.
Alexander Henry was unquestionably one of Scotlands finest rifle makers, posts on this blog testifying to the outstanding quality of the rifles built by him. What makes this book so special is the access Donald had to family archive via the great great grandson of Alexander Henry himself, one Richard Brown. Between the two of them they have put together the most complete history on the maker which is long overdue.
In Donald’s own words:
“It isn’t often that a gun or rifle maker is known to the general public, but Alexander Henry is with the Martini-Henry rifle. Although Henry was in business for a short time between 1852 until his death in 1894, he became a very well-known rifle maker not only in Great Britain but throughout the world. Henry was of a clever, inventive mind with his 1860 rifling and drop block action of 1865 and in addition, he was also astute in promoting this riflemaking ability. He attended all the major competitions, gave his rifles as prizes and was an early enthusiastic founder of the burgeoning Volunteer Movement.
By the 1860s Alexander Henry was the most well-known and pre-eminent rifle maker in Great Britain and the Empire. Orders flowed in from all parts of the world, with the customers in his Dimensions Books reading like a veritable Who’s Who of the period. He received Royal Warrants, unusual for a gunmaker outside London, and was on personal terms with the Prince of Wales.
Such were Henry’s achievements and fame that he featured regularly in The Scotsman and The Times newspapers in their records of shooting competitions, new inventions and military development. This contemporary documentary evidence is quite unusual for a gunmaker and was a great benefit in writing this book. He was a very public figure with not just self-interest driving his ambition, he was very patriotic and was keen to strive towards the greater good for his country.
One fortunate element in writing the Alexander Henry history is the existence of his complete records in the form of two Dimensions Books dating from 1852–1950. These books belong to John Dickson & Son and record in great detail every single firearm he constructed, making it possible to build up a very accurate account of his production.
Yet, for all his undoubted success in business and his contribution to rifle development, his personal life was marred by immense sadness and disappointment. However, he seemed to rise above this despondence and right to the end of his days strove constantly for perfection in all his works. The history of Alexander Henry is one of the most interesting histories of a gunmaker that I have encountered, an amalgam of worldwide success, yet tinged with disappointment and tragedy.”
The book contains around 200 full colour photographs, including the trade labels, patent drawings, photos of Henry’s personal shooting medals, with all 8000 guns and rifles listed by serial number. No gun library should be without a copy!
To purchase Donald’s latest book and for information on his previous publications, please visit http://donalddallas.com/
You may have found us a bit quieter than usual of late. Well, that is because we have been hard at work on an exciting new project. After considerable time and effort, we at Westley Richards are proud to announce the launch of our brand new website.
Featuring the finest imagery and design, and industry-leading technology, it showcases the world of Westley Richards like never before. Designed and developed especially for those with a passion for fine guns, hunting, bespoke leather goods and the very best shooting clothing and products, the new site is a reflection of what we do here at Westley Richards in our relentless pursuit of perfection. We hope you enjoy it and we look forward to welcoming you all into our world.
Houston’s Cyril Adams is one of the most influential figures in the revival of interest in British guns—particularly hammer guns and those with Damascus barrels—that swept America in the 1980s and ‘90s. During the period he owned London’s Atkin Grant & Lang (1984-1999), Adams resuscitated the once-great maker and aided by the expert tutelage of Ron Solari produced some of the finest sporting shotguns made in Britain during that time. In 1996, along with co-author Robert Braden, Adams published Lock, Stock & Barrel, which remains one of the best single-volume primers on the principles and methods of best quality British gunmaking.
Newly out is his magnum opus: Live Pigeon Trap Shooting, the first book written in the English language on the subject in more than 120 years, and by far the most comprehensive ever published. Clearly written throughout its 275 pages, and complemented with hundreds of rare photographs and illustrations, it is encyclopedic in its detail of the sport past and present.
Pigeon shooting was also popular in America, as shown in this 1891 illustration from Harper’s Weekly.
Today live pigeon trap shooting is arcane and little known but in its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not only enormously popular internationally—drawing large crowds of spectators—but also critically important in the development of modern wingshooting, shotguns, ammunition, and the target-shooting sports such as trap and Helice that are its direct descendants. In 1886, English shooting writer A.J Stuart-Wortley wrote of the sport: “Here every modern improvement in guns, powder, or cartridges has been brought to the test, and there can be no doubt that the practical proofs supplied by pigeon shooting have been of great service to the science of modern gunnery.”
Monte Carlo was the epicenter of international pigeon shooting, and its most prestigious venue. This photo likely dates from the early 1920s.
Italians have been many of the sport’s most successful shooters. The stylish Duke of Abruzzi in northern Italy in 1929.
As Adams explains in his overview introduction: “In the pigeon ring, new ideas for improvements to guns and ammunition could be tried against each other under consistent conditions with repeatable results. This is not possible in the field, but useful improvements developed and then proven by pigeon shooters were quickly incorporated into field guns and ammunition.” This was particularly true in the British gun trade, where pigeon shooting remained popular until the end of the 19th Century. Successful pigeon shots were often a gunmaker’s best source of advertising and publicity.
1930 World Championship program.
The action and excitement of a columbarie shoot in south Texas.
Westley Richards was just one of many gunmakers that used the success of pigeon shooters to promote its guns.
The Westley Richards “Ovundo” was offered in trap configurations and one was used by Henry Quersin to take several championships in Belgium in the 1920s.
Adams—an engineer by training with a specialty in low-temperature physics—has competed in pigeon and Helice rings around the world for half a century, and is a uniquely qualified author. The book comprises seven chapters: 1) History; 2) Bird and Traps; 3) Guns; 4) Ammunition; 5) Notable Shots; 6) Descendants; 7) How to Do It. A bibliography and an appendix of pigeon and Helice championship results and the rules governing the sport round the work out—and given its quality it is the most important book on wingshooting and fine guns to be published in 2017.
Cyril S. Adams, at home, in the ring, with his 34-inch-barreled Stephen Grant hammer gun — aka “Supergun.”
Live Pigeon Trap Shooting is available in the UK and internationally from the publisher, The Sporting Library, an imprint of BPG Media, which publishes Fieldsports: www.thesportinglibrary.co.uk. It is available to Americans purchasers directly from the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a red-brick workshop, built when Victoria reigned, on the southern side of Birmingham, in the hamlet of Stirchley, the clock stopped a hundred years ago. Through a gray metal door, up 14 worn wooden steps, you enter the world of Haydn Jonathan Hill—a fifth-generation action filer to the British gun trade who makes guns by the same methods and machines his great-great-grandfather used more than a century past.
Rip out the flourescent lights and electrical wire, and there isn’t much in this workshop that Haydn’s ancestors didn’t or couldn’t use. Along three south-facing windows is Haydn’s workbench, cluttered with files, chisels, hammers, strips of emery—the sundry implements of traditional handwork.
At the back of the shop are the machines. Haydn flicks on an electric motor, and a line shaft suspended near the ceiling begins to turn, driving pulleys hung with a web of worn leather belts that are connected to lathes, millers, shapers and slotters below. The years roll back as the machines begin to chug and hum, and the Edwardian era is upon you. Here is a belt-driven vertical miller from Germany’s Friedrich Deckel; The Denbigh, another miller from A. Finney & Co.; and yet another from Alfred Herbert. All were in use when Britain’s soldiers marched off to France in 1914.
Haydn appeared bemused at his American visitor’s wide-eyed wonderment. “This is just normal for me,” he said. “I just work from basic machinings I do here, and then make guns with these parts by hand.”
Making guns by hand is what Haydn’s family has done since at least the 1860s. His earliest known ancestor in the gun trade was his great-great-grandfather, John Hill (born in Birmingham in 1844), a gunmaker and engraver who had at least two sons follow on: Jesse Hill (born in 1867) and Charles Hill (in 1877). Jesse—Haydn’s great-grandfather—and Great-Great-Uncle Charles were action filers skilled enough to be recruited to live and work in London by Holland & Holland in the 1890s, when the firm erected its own factory on Harrow Road. In time Jesse became a foreman at Holland’s, and he was joined there by his son, Jesse Jr. (born in 1886), probably in the early years of the 20th Century, because apprentices started work around age 14.
The younger Jesse stayed at Holland’s until just after the First World War, when he moved back to Birmingham to set up as an independent action filer to the trade in the city’s gun quarter—initially on Price Street, later on Steelhouse Lane, and then Great Brook Street. Jesse Jr. was in turn joined by his son, Henry Radford Roland Hill (born 1921 and better known as Harry), and the pair worked together until Jesse Jr.’s death, in 1961. Three years later Haydn was born to Harry, ensuring another generation would continue the family’s profession as action filers (or actioners as they are called today).
The family name Hill suffuses the history of the Birmingham trade—Nigel Brown’s British Gunmakers Volume Two lists 24 separate Hills as gunmakers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. “I know almost nothing about them,” Haydn admitted, referring to who among them was related to whom, and how and where they lived, worked and died. Like so many craftsmen now forgotten, these were working men who labored in anonymity for larger gunmakers who had established their names as retail brands. In an age that was hierachical and class-bound, those who worked with their hands were seldom recognized; their achievements were even less often celebrated or recorded.
Recognition, if not fame, had come tantilizingly close for at least one family member. From his grandfather’s desk, Haydn pulled a small, tattered black book dating to 1919. It had belonged to his Great-Great-Uncle Charles, who at some point in the early 20th Century had left Holland & Holland for London’s James Woodward & Sons, where in 1913 he co-patented (Nos. 4986 and 9562, with Charles Woodward and W.P. Evershed) the firm’s enormously influential sidelock over/under. Charles has been credited by British gun historians such as Nigel Brown and David J. Baker as being largely responsible for the seminal design, and lore has it that he later left because he felt he had not received enough credit for its creation. Today the gun is not known as the Hill/Woodward over/under, rather only as the Woodward.
Cracking open the book, its pages brittled by time and darkened by generations of fingers smudged with smoke black and gun oil, Haydn pointed to an entry of hand-drawn dimensions for a 12-gauge sidelock over/under. At the top of the page bearing the drawings, in faint pencil in Charles’s hand, was the word “Woodward.”
“Good heavens,” said English gunmaker Robin Brown, who had accompanied me to Haydn’s. “Now that is a page of gunmaking history.”
A cache of correspondence dating from the 1920s through the ’70s and pages from a ledger book revealed just how many of England’s storied gunmakers had used Haydn’s great great uncle, grandfather and father to make their actions at one time or another: Grant, Lang, Hussey, Harrison & Hussey, Beesley, Jeffrey, Rhodda, Gibbs, Army & Navy, Osbourne, Powell, Holloway, Cogswell & Harrison, and Churchill, among others. There were orders for A&D boxlocks; screw-grips of all grades; sidelocks of conventional, Beesley, and Baker-design; double rifles; pigeon hammerguns; and over/unders.
“Best”-quality sidelock over/under actions built to the Woodward pattern—very difficult to make—were evidently a specialty, not only of Charles’s but also of Jesse’s. A letter to Jesse from E.J. Churchill (Gunmakers), Ltd., dated September 5, 1933, for an “urgent order” of an over/under pigeon gun reads as follows: “You have been recommended to us as the most likely person to suit our requirements and we are therefore placing this order with you and if satisfactory several other orders will follow . . . . This gun has to be shipped to New York at the end of November so you will appreciate no time can be lost.”
Jesse and Harry Hill did an enormous amount of work for Churchill’s from the 1930s until the firm closed, in 1980, and, according to Haydn, both knew the charasmatic owner well. In the mid-1950s Robert Churchill tasked Haydn’s grandfather with simplifying, perfecting and building his firm’s new Zenith over/over, a nettlesome triggerplate design that—according to Harry as quoted in Don Masters’ The House of Churchill—“almost drove his father [Jesse] mad.” Said Haydn: “I think my grandfather was under a lot of pressure to make the gun work.”
Despite the Zenith’s noteriety—Churchill promoted it in his popular book Game Shooting, and the story of its development became something of a consuming passion for British gunwriter Geoffrey Boothroyd—only two are believed to have been completed of the five originally envisioned. It was simply too complicated and too expensive to build commercially.
Haydn walked to the corner of his workshop to a bank of wooden drawers, pulled one open and, to the clanking of steel, rummaged through a nest of old actions to extract an over/under-body machining coated in a fine patina of rust. “It’s for a Zenith,” he said. “Never made up.” Then he found a set of barrels, with the breeches sculpted in the distinctive serpentine shape peculiar to Churchill’s gun. I could only imagine what Boothroyd would have thought if he’d seen them.
In 1958, when redevelopment in inner-city Birmingham flattened their premises at Great Brook Street, Jesse and Harry moved to the current workshop, bringing their ancient machines with them. In 1980, at 16, Haydn joined his father, then working alone, and began training under him as an apprentice action filer.
“You’ll have soon finished your apprenticeship,” quipped Robin, who also started work under his father at age 16 at A.A. Brown & Sons.
“There’s always something new to learn, isn’t there?” Haydn replied.
By the early ’80s, the Hills were mostly making sidelocks for the trade. A gunmaker typically would supply them with the barrels made up, machinings for the action and forend, and a set of locks. As actioners, Harry and Haydn would make, fit and regulate the internal components, chamber the barrels and joint them in, file up the action, fit the furniture, and have the gun proofed. The gunmaker-client would then take the action in-the-white back to be stocked, engraved, hardened and final-finished under its own name.
Harry taught young Haydn by allowing him to rough machine small components. “I didn’t take them to the finished stage,” Haydn said. “My father would finish them off by hand. After about a year he decided to push me further on, to actually fitting the parts. Then I moved on to fitting leverwork, ejectorwork, safework, then connecting it all up, until he thought I could do most of it.”
Learning to joint the barrels to the action—that is, the time-consuming, skill-intensive job of mating the bearing surfaces of each to the other—came last. “I was never allowed to do much jointing until later on—after maybe 10 years,” Haydn explained. “Too much at stake; if you scrape a pair of barrels, you’re in big trouble.”
And it wasn’t until his father suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1993 that Haydn began to consider himself a gunmaker in full. “I was thrown in the deep end really,” he said. “One day he was there; the next he wasn’t.”
After his father died, in 2005, Haydn became sole owner of Jesse Hill Gunmakers, and despite ups and downs in the British gun trade, he has never lacked work.
Today Haydn enjoys a reputation as a first-rate jointer, a craftsman who works to best standards and is possessed with a flair for filing up actions with elegance and grace. As an actioner to the trade, he declines to discuss the identities of current clients, but as an example of ongoing work, he revealed a massive large-bore action on his workbench. It was a boxlock with a hidden third-fastener, and Hayden had sculpted it by hand with large bolsters and was still in the process of jointing in its rifled barrels—a difficult job, given its Saurian size and weight.
“How many times have I been in here and you’ve had a moan about it?” Robin said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Haydn replied. “Hard work to joint, it is. Makes my shoulders ache.”
Yet for Haydn, traditional gunmaking—using manually operated machines to mill, drill, slot and rough out components, and then push a file and wield a chisel to literally craft a gun by hand from them—presents not only a challenge to rise to but also an accomplishment to take pride in. “A proper gun is as good on the inside as it is on the outside,” he said.
Haydn has never been asked to make a gun from the CNC-milled, wire- and spark-eroded components made close to final tolerances that are now ubiquitously used in the trade. Would he ever do so? “I would, yeah,” he said. “Can’t turn down work. But I don’t think I’d enjoy it. A machine-made gun is just a kit. It’s not really gunmaking, is it?”
The answer is complex, beyond the scope of this article, but Haydn’s question is an existential one that goes to the heart of artisinal gunmaking’s future—in England, in Europe, in America, everywhere.
At 50, Haydn Hill is still young, as gunmakers go, and his skills ensure years of work to come. “I don’t think there are many jointers out there with my experience.” But he acknowledges that he is among the last of a type: a gunmaker trained before the trade’s adoption of CAD/CAM technology. “Gunmaking—as I know it—is a dying art.”
He will likely also be the last of his line of Hills to make guns in Birmingham. Without a son, he shakes his head at the thought of bringing along an apprentice. “This is the sort of trade where you follow on from your father, who followed on from his, and he from his.”
One day he may consider making a gun or two with the Hill name on it—a handful exist from his grandfather’s day—but “it’s not something I’ve given much thought to.”
In the meantime there are actions to make for others and guns to build. “Well . . .” said Haydn, looking anxious to return to the century-old bench that he has known since he was a boy. “I’ll be here until I drop. It’s all I’ve ever done.”
Author’s Note: For more information, contact Jesse Hill Gunmakers, Ash Tree Rd., Stirchley, Birmingham, B30 2BJ, England.
Vic Venters is Shooting Sportsman’s Senior Editor.
My sincere thanks to Ralph Stuart Editor of Shooting SportsmanMagazine for allowing me to publish, in full, this article by Vic Venters on Haydn Hill.
Finally I would like to add..
“Given that London gunmakers often regard Birmingham craftsmen as little more than blacksmiths it’s ironic that one of the world’s most expensive shotguns — the Woodward over/under as built today by J Purdey & Son — actually has Birmingham origins….”